It’s hard to pin-down what comprises the “epic fantasy” subgenre, which is as much about attitude and tone as it is about setting. Some might say that it has to be a purely medieval fantasy world with elves and whatnot, but I think there are plenty of fantastic movies that tap into other backgrounds that can be considered epics. I think it’s more about good and evil, about the hero’s quest, and about the eventual triumph over the forces of darkness â€” but even then there’s a lot of wiggle room. These 16 films (and the occasional series) stretch over 69 years of cinema, bringing us the finest tales of magic and wonder, the greatest epic fantasies ever seen.
16. Voyages of Sinbad
The Voyages of Sinbad were a classic and loosely connected trilogy of movies from the late 50s and up to the 70s. The first was The 7th Voyage of Sinbad followed by The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and then Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. While made over 20 or so years, the real driving force behind these incredible titles was Ray Harryhausen, the amazing special effects and stop motion wizard who directed them. Personally responsible for the world of stop motion as we know it, the Voyages of Sinbad â€” especially the first one â€” were instant classics, and revolutionised the special effects world.
I’m still not sure I agree with using Dennis Quaid as an English knight when everyone else actually managed to either be or sound British, but I quibble. Dragonheart has everything you could want from an epic fantasy tale. A noble knight fallen on hard times, a dragon with a heart of gold, an evil king, a timid monk, and a bit of Arthurian lore thrown in for good measure. Yes, the plot was a little cheesy, but Draco was an incredibly well crafted dragon, and Sean Connery did amazing things with his voice. And 12-year old me loved the film, bittersweet ending and all.
Stardust is really one of those films that didn’t get nearly the respect it deserved. It was the Princess Bride of the 00s. The story of a man who runs into the world of the fairy to find a falling star for the woman he thinks he loves is endearing, action packed, swashbuckling, and more than anything else, incredibly witty. Thanks to its origin as a Neil Gaiman novel, the writing is superb, and the swordplay, magic and romance just bring it to another level. Sadly underappreciated, it’s a great movie with a perfect cast.
When people think epic fantasy, they usually imagine a pastiche of medieval Europe, what with knights and castles and dragons and whatnot, but fantasy can still be pretty epic in a completely different setting. Point in case, 300 â€” which rightfully deserves the title of epic. Yes, it’s not historically accurate, and yes it’s borderline racist and homophobic. It’s also an incredible action movie and fantasy title. Anyone who thinks it isn’t fantasy completely ignores the drugged up oracles, monstrous villains, and completely over the top and unbelievable action.
12. Princess Bride
There’s something really special about Princess Bride, isn’t there? For so many people it perfectly sums up their nostalgia for the 80s movies, with its incredible cast and wonderful story, all told without the benefit of CGI. I challenge you to find a child who wasn’t scared of the ROUSs, didn’t cheer when IÃ±igo stabbed the six fingered man, or have a crush on either Wesley or Buttercup (even if they never admitted it, because girls and kissing are gross). Fantastic and fantastical, a story of love and redemption if ever there was one, the Princess Bride well deserves a place on this list.
11. Chronicles of Narnia
Turning the Chronicles of Narnia into a film series raises an interesting couple of problems. There are a few of the titles which lend themselves easily to the big screen: Wardrobe, Caspian, Dawn Treader and to a lesser extent Silver Chair. But the others? They’re problematic. The Magician’s Nephew, the Horse and His Boy and the Last Battle all delve very deeply into Lewis’ religious beliefs, and the latter two are downright racist in their depiction of Narnia’s arab analogue. What that doesn’t change is that the first couple of movies are wonderful epic fantasies. Come on, a world of witches and talking animals, of magic swords and sailing to the end of the world? It’s like every childhood fantasy come true.
10. Thief of Bagdad
Yes, I know they spelled Bagdad wrong, but it was the 40s, these things hadn’t been formalized yet. Part of the occasionally popular genre of middle-eastern fantasy movies, the Thief of Bagdad presents all the trope we love and associate with the setting: the evil vizier, the naive royal, the crafty thief, the magical djinni. There’s even a flying carpet. The whole Orientalism thing isn’t so big these days, but there’s still that same magic and wonder in this movie, even as dated as it is from 1940. And face it, without the Thief of Bagdad, there’d be no Aladdin, and the world would be a much worse place.
9. Dark Crystal
Jim Henson at his mad best, constructing a completely magical and impossible world, infused with some surprisingly deep philosophical underpinnings. Like so many other works on this list, the world wasn’t quite ready for the wonderfulness that was the Dark Crystal. Henson’s epic tale about the nature of good and evil struggled at the box office, not in the least because of its mature and often times dark imagery, despite solid reviews. It did, strangely enough, take off in Japan and France, and has gathered a huge cult following over the years.
8. Pirates of the Caribbean
Pirates of the Caribbean may not seem the typical topic for an epic fantasy, there are no castles, no princesses and no dragons, but there’s enough magic and wonder in here to easily qualify, and I challenge anyone to watch any of the movies and not find use the word “epic”. Yes, they have some major flaws, but the battles and action in the second and third movies were so incredibly over the top that you can’t deny their awesomeness, or the series’ place on this list. Huge sea monsters, giant duels on disintegrating ships, magic, zombies, and a whole lot of crazy.
Legend is an odd, odd film, but one of the most purely traditional fantasy stories on this list. At its heart it’s a treatise on the notions of good and evil, with a pure princess and forest man attempting to stop the reign of darkness sweeping over the world. Oddly philosophical for a fantasy movie, it gains a lot of strength from the incredible special effects, especially with Tim Curry as the most insanely great devil that has ever been put on celluloid. It’s also bizarre to see a young Tom Cruise running around in a jerkin that leaves an uncomfortable amount of leg exposed.
6. Clash of the Titans
The original, not the remake. While you could pretty happily argue that the 1981 Clash of the Titans isn’t a very good movie, what it is is an epic classical fantasy of the highest calibre. You have Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Burgess Meredith and Ursula Andress slumming it in togas. And you can’t look past the exquisite Harryhausen special effects, which are truly at their peak here. A classic action and adventure story of the adventures of Perseus, it has that wonderful moral greyness of so many classic Greek tales, including the fact that all the Gods are pretty much giant assholes.
The term “epic” is bandied about pretty loosely in this day and age, but it was originally reserved for these wonderful old tales of gods and murder, told by bards and talespinners in dark and smokey halls in ages past. Stories like Beowulf, the incredible viking tale of heroism and brutality which has managed to stay in our literary lexicon for centuries. This movie version isn’t remembered too fondly, and to be fair the CGI has dated pretty badly, mired as it is in the uncanny valley. However, it’s still an incredibly interesting film, with a surprisingly good set of actors behind it, which tries to capture the brutality and action of this classic tale. Beowulf was received much better by critics than by our memories, and is definitely worth watching with an open mind.
Yeah, Willow does borrow liberally from Tolkien â€” if nothing else because of the hobbits as the focus of the story â€” but that doesn’t stop this rip-roaring fantasy from being one of the best to ever make its way to the big screen. Hell, in the decades before LotR hit the screens, this was just about as close as you could get to the story of the ring. It really has all classical tropes of epic fantasy, and follows the hero’s journey to a tee. Helped by the incredible (for the time) special effects, Willow is a fondly remembered epic fantasy, with all the monsters, magic, fighting and comedy you could want.
For most of the English speaking world, epic fantasy traces back to a single world/story in our minds, that of King Arthur. Even more than LotR, the story of King Arthur is one baked into the setting in a way that’s inescapable. While the magic is on a small scale compared to some of the other stories on this list, you have Merlin and that magic sword, and the scarceness of magic makes it all the more important. The film Excalibur was the best of any of the attempts to do a live-action Arthur film. It played the story as straight as possible, keeping it do its medieval romance roots, with all the drama, romance and intrigue you expect from the story.
Dragonslayer is an incredibly interesting movie, if only because it exposes a brief flirtation that Disney had with darker, more mature fare â€” I believe it’s the first Disney movie to show full frontal nudity. Built on the foundations of the story of an evil dragon devouring virgins, the movie twists the expectations, avoiding the musclebound knight or barbarian destroying it, instead having an untrained apprentice magician as the main character. Throw in a large amount of politics, subterfuge, romance, lying, and evil, and you have a much darker and more interesting movie than this has any right to be.
1. Lord of the Rings
Oh come on, was there ever any doubt? LotR completely changed the cinematic landscape for fantasy movies, showing that not only could large, big budget fantasy films be made, but that they could succeed and even win Oscars. No other fantasy film has managed to match the success of the LotR trilogy, but I have high hopes for the Hobbit. The production diaries so far make it look incredible, and the costumes are out of this world. Peter Jackson’s entries into the world of epic fantasy are fantastic, perfectly balancing light and dark, action and drama. They’re amazing, and deserve their place at the top of this list.